Lessons from Stoic Philosophy That Challenge How We Set Goals

Of the additions I make to the SMART Method (using the not-so-clever name of ‘SMARTEST Method’), Epictetus (the 'E' in 'SMARTEST) is probably most popular. Actually, it’s probably the part I’ve received the most positive feedback about. 

Basic Premise

According to most, “accomplishment” of a goal is:

Person sought X.

Person did Y.

Person got X because of doing Y.

This conception ignores the role of other people and circumstances that we have little, if any, control over. As a result of this widespread misbelief, society judges our actions by the outcome.

This is wrong. Here’s why:

  1. Our lives are governed by uncertainty — and there’s little we can do about it. We like to pretend otherwise — it makes us feel safer.
  2. We commit errors of logic by presuming that getting X means Y was effective, and conversely, that not getting X means Y was ineffective.

According to Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, there are three types of “things” in this world:

  • those entirely in our control (the few);
  • those outside our control (the many); and
  • those we have some control over (where the important action is.)

Applied to Goals

It does us no good to define goals that can only be accomplished if other people and events happen to go our way. Instead, define your goals based on what you have at least some control over.

For example, consider the goal of “winning a poker tournament.” Poker, like life and everything in it, is affected by other people’s actions and general uncertainty. You may or may not get the cards you need; you have little control over other players’ actions, etc. You could play the best poker of your life and still lose the tournament — it happens to poker professionals all the time.

If, instead, you turn this goal into “play the best poker of my life in the tournament,” then this goal can be accomplished. It is entirely within your control.

Other Examples

  • “Be a professional writer” requires other people to buy your book. “Self — publish a book”, however, is almost entirely within your control.
  • “Get a promotion” depends upon your supervisors, company profits, office politics, bias, etc. “Make 1,000 sales calls”, on the other hand, is a goal because it is in your control. It puts you in position to receive a promotion, but the goal is achieved whether you receive the promotion or not.


Define your goals so you — and no one else — is in the driver’s seat. Then you can learn from your actions, not your outcomes.


For more on Epictetus and goal management, check out my book.



No need to keep hitting refresh in anticipation of my next post.

Subscribe via e-mail. When there is a new post, you will know about it. That's it! No spamming!

 Or subscribe via RSS.